Apathy and Corruption in the City of Hillsdale

This opinion piece, originally written on the old Josh's Uncommon Sense blog on May 15th, 2015, is presented here for archival purposes.  This is the article that precipitated the launch of the short-lived Hillsdale News Now, and placed Josh among the most-followed commentators in Hillsdale County.

NOTE: This post is coming a couple of days early due to its time sensitivity.  The Hillsdale City Council meeting at which a city manager hiring is expected to be approved is tonight, Monday, May 4th, at 7:00 PM.

If I told you to go to 97 North Broad, would you know where that is?

Chances are dangerously high that you wouldn't.  Because nobody in the City of Hillsdale seems to know that we even have a City Hall anymore, let alone know where it is, what's going on there right now, or who's seeking to represent their ward in the November election.

Do you even know that there is a November election?

Do you even know that there are vacancies on the city council right now?

Are you paying attention to local politics at all?

Are you even alive right now?

I shouldn't be too terribly harsh.  We have no real press in this city.  We have no newspaper outside of a lone reporter, a lone sportswriter, and whoever Gatehouse can dupe into writing for them for a pittance this week.  We have a radio station that rips and reads the police blotter, and that's about it.  Sometimes the Jackson Citizen Patriot covers a few stories from the county, but their audience is Jackson County, not us.  And getting the Lansing TV stations to cover anything going on here?  Ha!  Good luck!

It's no wonder you're so woefully uninformed.  There's barely any journalism going on in this town at all.

But let's face it: that's no excuse.  Those of us living here at the spring of the St. Joe just don't give a damn.  City politics?  We can't be bothered.  It's not important to us.  We've got bigger fish to fry.  We're more concerned with... well, anything but city politics.

Remember that big hullabaloo about the streets last year?  City Hall wanted to unnecessarily raise taxes to pay an outrageously overestimated amount of money for street repair, and we collectively -- correctly -- replied, "are you kidding me?"  But beyond rejecting that ballot proposal, what else did you do?  Oh, sure, a few people showed up at city council meetings to present alternatives... which, of course, the council simply rejected out of hand, saying "I don't wanna!" in their best three-year-old voices.  But were you there to see it?  Were you even aware that it had happened?

Again, the chances are dangerously high that the answer is "no."

I keep saying "dangerously" because you're most likely unaware of the latest news to be coming from the pentagonal structure sitting between Broad, Hillsdale and Carleton.

(Did you even know that City Hall is a pentagon?)

In case you missed it -- and you did, because literally everybody did -- April 21st was the deadline to file petitions to run for the vacant city council seats in Wards 1, 2 and 4.

(Do you even know what ward you live in?)

Nobody filed.  Absolutely nobody.

Well, okay, one person did.  Bruce Sharp.  But he's an incumbent.  Everyone else is either term-limited or leaving for their own reasons.

That means that there are currently four council seats that will go unfilled barring write-in campaigns, and Ward 2 (which happens to be where I live) will have no representation on the council at all.  Additionally, no one filed to run for city clerk, either, so after this election, council is going to have to appoint someone to that position.

Now, before you say "well, then, maybe YOU should run, Josh," I'll disabuse you of that notion immediately.  That's not my calling.  I can barely manage my own life let alone the governance of a city.  Even if it were my calling, I'm not familiar with the inner workings of city government enough to simply jump in and expect to be an effective legislator.  Because, unlike our current state representative, I actually take the time to learn about my jobs before I bother applying for them.  I don't belong in that seat right now, if ever.

There's another seat that I don't belong in, an equally important seat, and none of the people currently up for the job belong in it either.  I'm referring, of course, to that of the city manager.

Last week, in the Facebook group Hillsdale's Hot Debates (the "social media" that WCSR credited with unearthing this story), a couple of members did some digging into the history of the top two candidates that the search committee is considering, and they came up with some rather interesting facts.  Among them being that one candidate, William Cooper, bankrupted the last city he ran.  The other candidate, David Mackie, bankrupted himself and faced a bit of legal trouble for ripping off his investors in an apartment complex renovation deal.  Oh, and the guy heading up the search committee?  That would be Doug Terry, the interim city manager... who, it has been rumored, will get the job if no one else is hired.

Conflict of interest?  Nahhhhhhhhhh.

Of course, knowing that the heat was on, the city put together a hastily-scheduled public meeting to introduce the two candidates.  How hastily?  They announced it to the media on April 30th, and it was scheduled for May 2nd.  That's right: a Saturday afternoon meeting announced on Thursday, when most people already had plans for the weekend lined up well before then.

Intentional flight under the radar?  Nahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Now, Linda Brown resigned as city manager all the way back on February 2nd.  You might be asking yourself right now: isn't there some sort of time limit as to when the city council has to hire a new one?

Why, indeed there is!

According to the municipal code, "The Council shall, within 90 days after any vacancy exists in the position of City Manager, appoint a City Manager for a period of not less than one year nor more than five years and shall fix his compensation."  The period of 90 days after Linda Brown's resignation?  Guess when that ended?  Yep.  May 3rd.  The day after the hastily-scheduled public meeting.  A Sunday, no less.  A Sunday that has come and gone, and we still have no city manager.

Additionally, the code also states that [emphasis mine] "The Council may appoint or designate an acting City Manager for a period not to exceed sixty days during the period of a vacancy in the office or during the absence of the City Manager from the City and shall have all the responsibilities, duties, functions and authority of the City Manager."  Which means that Terry's appointment has actually been longer than allowed by law for more than a month's time now.

One Hot Debates group member who was at Saturday's meeting reported to me that Terry was rather irate at the fact that his actions and motivations were being called into question -- on the Internet, no less; the nerve of those people! -- and after arguing against allowing public comment, he had to be taken out of the room and shown that the law requires it.  That fight then continued in front of the city council, which led to a vote to essentially tell him to sit down and shut up, and public comment was, in fact, allowed.  Because, you know, the law requires it.

Needless to say, Doug Terry is not a happy camper right now.

Much of the problem is the "good ol' boy" situation in this town.  Some of it just comes with the territory of small town politics: everyone knows everyone else.  But that being the case, and everyone being well aware that conflicts of interest are to be avoided, there should be a lot less of it going on, and it's just business as usual around here.  As the late, great, George Carlin famously said, "it's a big club, and you ain't in it."

Yet even if it weren't for that club, what it really comes down to is the fact that there has been no transparency in this search at all.  That fact is merely exacerbated by the "good ol' boy" situation.  The city council ostensibly conducted the search internally in order to save money -- instead of hiring an independent firm to do it, as is done by every other city that even half-assedly tries to make it look like they're not as corrupt as Hell itself.  I mean, hey, it's a fairly decent excuse.  Begging poor is relatively easy to pull off when roughly half of your streets make Kabul look like a motorist's paradise.

But it gives those in charge of the internally-conducted search far too great an opportunity to dupe not only the council, but the entire city as a whole.  There was supposedly a wide field of potentials to choose from, and we're only hearing about two of them.  We have no other names, we have no information about how these two were picked, we would know absolutely nothing about even THESE two candidates if it hadn't been for a couple of people outside the process -- and not even in the media -- doing a simple friggin' Google search!

Did the city council even bother to do that much?  Apparently not, because councilman Patrick Flannery told the Daily News, and this is a direct quote, "We are happy to present these two candidates.  I see both candidates moving the city forward, to help us with the goals we have before us."

Bankruptcy and fraud are goals of the government of the City of Hillsdale?  Well, to quote Spock, "It would explain a great many things."

That same Hot Debates member tells me that only one other person from the group was there Saturday afternoon, and while disappointment isn't quite appropriate in this case given the short notice, it's not as if the third floor is packed to standing room at any given city council meeting.  This is the norm in this town.  Everybody bitches about the legitimate problems, but when it comes time to actually take action, nobody shows up.  It's like we're living in an M. Night Shyamalan movie called "The Non-Event."  All this buildup, and then... just totally flatlines.

Actually, that pretty much describes every M. Night Shyamalan movie, but that's neither here nor there.

The point is, we need to get off of our fat backsides and do something.  And I'm yelling at myself here just as much as I'm yelling at you.  I'm guilty of this, too.  We all are.  Civic involvement in this city has just hit what is most likely an all-time low.  Certainly the lowest it's been in any of our lifetimes.

And when we all find out what the result of that apathy is, complaining about the streets is going to be the least of our worries.

Correction: In the initial version of this post, I accidentally flipped the names of the city manager candidates in relation to their respective issues.  The post has been updated to correct the error.